Detroit Shuffle is the very best kind of amateur detective novel - a complex weave of disparate but interrelated threads that advance then double back on each other in ways that would make a Flemish tapestry artist envious. Mostly-failed engineer Will Anderson has thwarted the murder of suffragist Elizabeth Hume, and is desperately searching for the man who attempted to kill her. On top of that lies the emotional drama of Will's mental disability. He has blackouts, the result of clinical radium treatments he endured during a previous case. This bit of background information, alone, enticed me to read D. E. Johnson's previous novels, although Detroit Shuffle can certainly be read on its own.
It's the fall of 1912 in a city Will refers to as "the Paris of the West": Detroit, Michigan - and with good reason. In 1912 Detroit was the epicenter of something that would truly open great, new vistas for the entire population of the Western Hemisphere - the automobile industry. Elizabeth, who is Will's girlfriend and leader of a large and influential suffragist group, is speaking before a crowd when Will spots a man staring at Elizabeth and brandishing a gun. In a blur of panic, Will draws his weapon and attempts to overtake the mysterious gunman, who narrowly escapes Will's grasp before disappearing into the melee. With no corroborating witnesses, Will is taken into custody as a suspected assassin. Of his own girlfriend!
No one takes the notion of Will's attempt to kill Elizabeth seriously. But more damning is the fact that everyone, Elizabeth included, believes the alleged gunman is a figment of Will's imagination; a residual affect of his previous hospitalization. Their doubt only serves to fortify the young man's resolve. He becomes so determined to prove the gunman's existence that he gets himself fired from his job as an engineer at his father's electric car company for missing too many days' work. In the meantime, Will becomes a target. Shady characters are following him, pursuing every shred of evidence he collects, threatening his life.
Here is where Johnson stirs the pot, or plot, as it were. Will's evidence begins to coalesce into a suspected conspiracy to fix the upcoming election that will determine the immediate fate of women's suffrage in Michigan. Johnson brings in one potential suspect after another as if each is just waiting in the wings for his or her cue. There is the head of the Michigan Liquor Association, an old high school classmate, private detective agents hired to protect Elizabeth, a former nemesis, plus the corrupt Detroit Police Department. Will barely knows which way to turn. Even his "allies", Detective Riordan and Elizabeth, remain doubtful of his reports, and their well-intentioned actions often only serve to thwart Will's efforts.
All of this is exquisitely laid out amid sumptuous descriptions of a time and a city so alive and vital as to leap off the page and embrace the reader in its grand exuberance. My only, albeit infinitesimal, complaint is that sometimes Johnson's story arc and wickedly sharp characterizations fall second place under the weight of these meticulously researched descriptions. But as I think about it, that may just be Johnson's secret to plot pacing. Because he is indeed a master at establishing a finely tuned tempo, holding a reader just breathless enough to keep turning page after page.
Yessir. With all its mystery, thrills, moral, ethical and emotional dilemmas - even Will has self-doubts after suffering a day-and-a-half long blackout - to say nothing of Johnson's literary chiaroscuro, this is about as good as it gets. I say, if you read only only one amateur detective novel this year, make it this one.
This review is from the November 6, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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